Pamela A. Popper, Ph.D., N.D.

Pamela A. Popper, Ph.D., N.D.

Posted January 10, 2011

Published in Lifestyle

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Use Action Triggers to Make Lifestyle Change

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I read a great book over the holidays called Switch: How to Change When Change is Hard by Chip Heath and Dan Heath.  The book addresses how to help people and groups to change in positive ways.  I took many pages of notes and have already started successfully using several of the concepts and strategies.  The authors make several good points about change, one of which is that knowledge does not change anything.  This is certainly true in our business.  Lots of Wellness Forum members know what to eat and what not to eat; and they also know that they should exercise regularly.  I think the information we communicate to our clients is crystal clear.  Yet many people are not doing the right things. 


One strategy described in the book that has been proven to help people to do better is using what is called an "action trigger."  For example, you might say to yourself, "Tomorrow I am going to go straight from the office to the gym and work out before I go home."  You've tied a specific healthy behavior (working out) to a specific situational trigger (leaving the office). 


The book cites the research of Peter Gollwitzer, a New York University psychologist.  In one study, Gollwitzer gave college students the opportunity to earn extra credit by writing a paper about how they spent Christmas Eve and turning it in on December 25.  Only 33% of the students completed the assignment and turned it in on time.  But some of the students were asked to set action triggers in advance - they decided when they were going to write the report and where they were going to do it.  75% of those students completed the assignment. 


The authors state that "action triggers can have a profound power to motivate people to do the things they know they need to do."   The reason, according to Gollwitzer, is that action triggers eliminate the need for conscious deliberation by making people "pre-decide" what they are going to do, and that they "protect goals from tempting distractions, bad habits, or competing goals." 


Here's a great way to start the year: write down all of the things you know you are supposed to be doing but are not doing.  This list does not have to be limited to only diet and lifestyle-related activities (although focusing on those would make me the happiest!).  See if you can tie all of them to an action trigger and create an environment in which you start to succeed at making changes instead of constantly beating yourself up for not getting certain things done.  A hidden benefit of engaging in this exercise is that it will help you to be more organized since you'll be planning your schedule carefully to include everything you need to get done. 


An extra step I personally recommend is to think through the situations in you are likely to eat things you are not supposed to eat (I'm assuming you have sanitized your house and office and that restaurants and events are where the temptations are greatest).  Take time to visualize yourself in these settings before you get there and pre-determine how you are going to avoid eating six dinner rolls, having appetizers with cheese, or other foods you know you should avoid.  See yourself, lean and strong, eating a baked potato and salad, and think about how great it is to be in control of food instead of letting food control you!  Just a little time spent thinking before you attend an event can help you to avoid just reacting to what is placed in front of you.  You can use this strategy to plan what you'll do while travelling and other situations in which you want to maintain your good habits.